This page was first posted on this website in 2000 by the original Webmaster, Ian Warrington, shortly after the website was started. It was based on extracts from the 1997 'Welney Parish Appraisal', and is shown here in the current format style and navigation menu but with text unaltered and unabridged.

The history section was written by the late Helen Barry whilst living at Welney Hotel on Bedford Bank, West, south of Pisces. The housing section was written by the late Ken Sorenson of Taymor Place.

Many of the subjects mentioned have since been updated and covered in more detail elsewhere on this website. Links are at the bottom of page.

Village of Fens and Wash

Welney is a village of the Fens and the Wash.

Its site, its people, its prosperity, its very existence through thousands of years, has always been governed by water; by the flow of rivers through it and the inland flood of the tide nearby.

Nature, history, weather and man's artificial interference has changed the course of rivers and the lie of solid land in the Eastern Fens. But through the ages, that point of land, which can still be called Welney, has adapted itself to river and dyke flow, to farming and the fashion in crops, to trade and navigation by river and road, and survived.

Today as European history approaches the third Christian millennium, Welney still sits on and lives on water; still straddles three rivers and covers almost a mile of washland, which floods to divide it, weeks at a time, each winter. A yearly flood, which reminds the divided parish of the power of water and of its place in its history. Even the modem technology of the motor vehicle must make a twenty-mile detour when the water rises.

Welney is a community of people that has survived as a settlement on a long tongue of land, which originally wound through the Wash from Lincolnshire to Littleport. This sliver of silt took shape in the Iron Age. It increased and strengthened to provide for the Welney villagers of the first century AD, a firm foothold in their Romano‑British settlement, which was built just north of the present Littleport/Wisbech road (A 1101). It provides our first visual proof of a village at Welney nearly two thousand years ago.

Early Times

Welney's Romano‑British ancestors lived in apparent peace on that site for nearly three hundred years. Their rivers ran through different courses then but, even in Roman Britain, dykes were built to control the flow and drain the land. Then after three hundred years came a flood they couldn't control. It is marked and measured today by six feet of silt on top of the remains of their buildings and it overwhelmed them. It must have been a deep and vicious flood to create that much silt and it came from where? Possibly in the last years of the fourth century a huge tide and extreme weather created similar conditions to those witnessed in living memory in 1947.Perhaps those ancient villagers too ‑ those that survived ‑ looked out on the deep expanse of water, on a flood such as had never been seen before. The Roman village on the edge of the Wash was overwhelmed by floodwater. The present village which over the centuries had moved slightly westward to higher ground, stood safe in the Spring of 1947 whilst young and old gazed at the flood waters.

Welney Wash Flooded Welney Wash Flooded. Digi-Photograph courtesy of the Welney Archive

The Romano‑British rebuilt their Welney settlement after their catastrophic flood. We know that today from the evidence we dig out of the soil they lived in. But we have precious little factual evidence of the life of Welney through the next thousand years, except that the lie of river beds and that tongue of silt probably gave the villagers a living in fishing, transport, access to the sea and fertile land for crops. We know that the main site of the village/parish moved westward and eastward to straddle the Wash and take up its present position on higher ground. The Norman church of the eleventh and twelfth century stood centrally in the larger settlement, within the same ground as our present church. Its foundations can still be seen through the grass in dry summer weather.

Middle Ages

We can perhaps speculate that Welney men and women in these times, were much of a muchness with all Fen people who knew their waters and swamps and high ground and who made their livelihood there. In the centuries of the Dark Ages, Norman Conquest and Medieval times, England was essentially a place of feudal loyalties and close communities. Travel was difficult and the Fens notorious for their enclosed and sometimes mutinous settlements. The great Saxon Fen leader, Hereward the Wake was still fighting the Normans in 1070, four years after the defeat of Hastings. Facts about this whole period are scarce but myth and legend abound. Do the nearby names of Gold Hill and The Golden Square relate to the burial of some of King John's treasure supposedly lost in the Wash in the early thirteenth century? Are they deep in the soil near Welney? Certainly, nearly a thousand years after the Roman influence, Welney would have known the obvious and national power of the monasteries at Ramsey and Ely. Welney's river, known as The Croft, but in medieval times as the 'Aqua de Welle', transported the stone from Barnack quarry, near Stamford, to the site of the building of Ely Cathedral.

The monastic abbots ruled huge tracts of land and had great territorial powers as town landlords and dictatorial farmers and landowners, as did the Bishop of Peterborough. Bishop Morton of Peterborough later became Chancellor to King Henry VII. He would be a dream employee of the Inland Revenue today. His method of collecting taxes was known as 'Morton's Fork'. He would visit you and if you lived in affluent comfort would assess that your riches indicated that you could well afford high taxes to the King; if you lived frugally, he would assess that you had huge savings and could afford high taxes to the King. He was a favourite of the King, but not, presumably, elsewhere. However there is no factual evidence that anyone in Welney was rich enough to tempt him and likely that the Fenmen were as wily as he.

Morton's name is important not because he taxed Welney, but because he represents the powerful Lords and vested interests which surrounded the village for centuries. Welney has always been a village on the edge of interested parties: Ely and Cambridge encroaching northward; the Lincolnshire stability of Peterborough pushing its influence westward; the trade link to the seaward‑looking ports of Wisbech and Kings Lynn, and the homing instinct of the village itself to be part of the county of Norfolk.

It is amazing that Welney has retained an individual identity whilst being chopped up between different centres of church and state control. The ecclesiastical history of the village, given elsewhere in this appraisal, shows how the village parish has been divided between Upwell and Ely, and in civic terms, even today, most of the post comes on a Cambridgeshire postcode to households who pay council tax to Norfolk and it requires the three modem telephone directories for Peterborough, Cambridge and Kings Lynn to trace correct numbers within a fifteen miles radius of the village. Look at it on the map. Throughout the centuries it has been a point of fertile land on navigable water between important land centres and the sea.

When we come to the time when the well-documented history of the village begins, the seventeenth century and the great construction of the dykes, you recognise again the importance of the relationship between Welney and its rivers.

Like all Fen villages, its future and its prosperity at this time hung upon decisions made far away and at different times in Cromwell's office, in the Monarch's office, in the Duke of Bedford's stately home and on Vermuyden's drawing board. But Welney seems to have held a pivotal position. As drainage weakened the Old Croft River and its link through Upwell with Wisbech, so the Old Bedford and Delph and the New Hundred Foot rivers became more important and the shorter link through to Salter's Lode, Downham Market, Kings Lynn and the Wash prevailed and prospered. Much of village life centred on the water and so cottages and pubs began to line the route of the Old Bedford River, the tracks that are now called Bedford Bank East and West. But still, the village stretched across the Wash to the point now at Suspension Bridge, where a healthy community stayed in contact by ferryboat when the waters ran high. Called Welney (Norfolk), it was a robust community, which later had its own school and chapel. It was west of its main influence of Littleport and Ely, but east of its own village across the Wash. Vermuyden's plans made stronger dyke and river divisions between the two arms of the village but never separated them.

Draining the Fens

However, whatever the arguments for and against Vermuyden's plans for the Fen drainage in the seventeenth century, Welney records a very particular financial bonus which supplements villagers and village life to this day. Vermuyden's works brought in huge numbers of workers: Dutch and Scottish craftsmen and labourers, descendents of whom are now Fenmen and Fenwomen. It also brought in professional workers, among them a London lawyer named William Marshall. Like many other professionals it appears he was given land in lieu of payment, but unlike many others he formed a special link with Welney. During work on the Bedford Level, William Marshall was apparently taken ill in Welney; he was housed and tended in the Lamb and Flag; public house, and received such kindness from the villagers that he left extensive land in his will in 1661 to provide an income for charitable work among church and school, young people and widows and village life as a whole.

Since that date hundreds of thousands of pounds have accrued and been spent. They commemorate the Welney villagers who, it seems, befriended a lone and sick lawyer engaged in the Vermuyden drainage in the seventeenth century, and has been a sign for more than three hundred years of his generous recognition of their Christian help.

The Charity has had a vital and visible effect upon life in Welney. People, particularly the young and old were given help. Apprentices had their tools paid for and young people helped in their school and training, widows were given pensions, and even today each widow in Welney receives a quarterly grant from the Charity. Buildings too, drew the Charity's support and in 1848 a village school and a new village church were both paid for by the Marshall Charity. Both still stand and are in use today. Earlier in 1832 the Charity paid for the New River Delph Bridge.

Ice Cream always a favourite in the summer months… Ice Cream always a favourite in the summer months. Digi-Photograph courtesy of the Welney Archive

Like many villages in the Fens, Welney had need of good bridges and the generosity of another man, William Townley, paid for the first Suspension Bridge, which provided a partial road link across the Hundred Foot Drain (New Bedford River), which flowed between the two halves of the village. A ferry had previously linked them but now the ferrymen were only needed to cross the flooded Wash in winter. But those Wash ferrymen were still necessary and plying their trade until the middle of this century. The mail got through and the children got to school well into the 1940's by ferryboat.

Vermuyden's drainage dykes provided useful transport canals for commercial traffic, which became very important in Victorian times with the onset of the industrial revolution. Cottages, mills and pubs converged on the Old Bedford River. The Three Tuns, The Eagle Tavern and The Welney Hotel were all within a mile of each other, and each in their time offered not merely drinking parlours but accommodation for the men who sailed the dykes with their barge loads of bricks and iron and coal and all the other necessities of life and trade. Down Bedford Bank on land now riverside fields, there were dozens of cottages housing large families. A modern bungalow, 'Mill Row', covers the land of a mill and five cottages. It is said that as late as 1947 there were forty children attending the school from Bedford Bank West where now there are merely seven or eight homes ‑ two of which are former public houses.


In Victorian times Bedford Bank was thriving. In the first great census of England in 1851, the Welney population was 1206 souls. A few decades earlier in the 1830's, on the edge of the parish further down the Bedford Bank towards Manea, there was started one of the earliest communes on record in this country. A philanthropist from Upwell ‑ another generous William surnamed Hodson ‑ set up The Colony in which poor men could own and till their own acre whilst sharing alike in communal housing, windmill and mooring facilities on the river. The idea was that men would work for their own food but share in the community needs, housing, milling corn, selling surpluses, transport and some simple administration.

An engraving of Welney (circa. 18 century?) An engraving of Welney (circa. 18 century?). Digi-Photograph courtesy of the Welney Archive

It is likely that this is an artists impression of the hopes for The Colony rather than what was achieved because, like many optimistic, philanthropic ventures, it lasted only five years. But the idea was adventurous and you can still see bits of brick turned over by the plough in the fields that now cover the site of their hopes and dreams.

Welney seems to have prospered in Victorian times. In 1864 it became a separate church and civic parish and a Rectory was built in 1864; six almshouses had been provided by the Marshall Charity in 1848 and the Charity built a 'Mission' school for 80 children at the Suspension Bridge end of the village, which indicates how that was thriving too.

Welney Parish Church in the snow Welney Parish Church in the snow. Digi-Photograph courtesy of the Welney Archive

But it was not all good works, communes and charity that brought Welney to the notice of the country as a whole in Victorian times. The village was a national, and indeed, world centre for ice speed skating championships. Ice-skating in the Fens seems to have been given a boost in popularity by the enthusiasm of the Dutch immigrants who followed Vermuyden and worked and settled here. Conditions were similar to the lowlands in Holland and then in the nineteenth century, when frozen winters seemed regularly to follow each other, competition hit the national consciousness rather like football euphoria today.

Each year when the shallow waters on the Wash and then the rivers and dykes froze over, Welney men took to their skates and outshone all others, it seems. In the 1880's Welney was called ' The Metropolis of Speed Skating,' when six of the top ten fastest skaters in the country were Welney men: G Smart, G See, H Carter, A Hawes, T Watkinson and J Smart.

Main Street (Cherry Tree?) circa 1910? Main Street (Cherry Tree?) circa 1910? Digi-Photograph courtesy of the Welney Archive

The ice speed champions were stars in their day. Many had nicknames ‑ William Smart, champion from 1854 ‑ was 'Turkey', possibly from the dominance of news from the Crimean War at the time of his greatest fame. His style was reported in the "Boys Own Paper": ' the power of his stroke was enormous, delivering it with the strength of an ox, and from it he flung himself fearlessly forward like a bird of prey in full flight.' Turkey's cousin 'Guttapercha' See was named for one of the toughest materials known in his time. George 'Fish' Smart did the mile officially in three minutes in 1881 and his younger brother James was acclaimed as World Champion in 1888 when he beat the Dutch champion in Amsterdam. The late Victorian times were the heyday of national championships, but Welney men stayed at the top in competitions well into this century. Ernie James, who still lives in the village reports in his book 'The Fen Tiger', on his successes in the 1930's, and Welney man, Reg Scott, was national champion from 1947 to 1952.

The Twentieth Century

Welney in the twentieth century has both suffered and prospered in much the same way as throughout the county and indeed throughout the country. The First World War claimed the lives of 22 villagers and 7 Welney men died in the Second World War. The village seems to have joined the technological age slowly having but 5 subscribers to the telephone in 1933 and only coming off a three figure local exchange in 1995. It made the national newspaper sports headlines by dismissing Friday Bridge CC for 0 in 28 deliveries in 1928, and the village postman, Horace Kimmons, featured on BBC Radio in 1937 with his photograph in Radio Times rowing across the Wash floods to deliver his mail.

Re-enforcing the banks… Re-enforcing the banks. Digi-Photograph courtesy of the Welney Archive

The villagers survived the 1947 floods and have had to come to terms with all the changes of the late twentieth century. No more cycle shop, petrol station and butcher in the village ‑ just one general store and post office. Few bus services and little work for young people. But a thriving commuter life to outside work and still a village spirit and pride. The parish hall, rebuilt in 1929, is still host to community life, the doctor's surgery three times a week. Whist and bingo and a senior citizens club. There is a play bus for small children on Monday and a monthly mobile library for their elders. The village school thrives and has an excellent standard and the village church has a hard‑working and popular woman vicar. The Water Gala still brightens up August Bank Holiday with raft races on the Old Bedford and the Playing Fields Committee still supports a cricket team and Welney United football team.

The village is nationally known for the Welney Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, established by Sir Peter Scott and opened to the public in 1970, under the management of its first warden, George 'Josh' Scott, a Welney man born and bred. Both the Trust and the coarse fishing season bring us many visitors each year. Welney villagers, born and bred or recently come to roost welcome them.


Housing There has been a settlement at Welney for over 400 years but none of the old dwellings survive. Over the years the older houses were either demolished or rebuilt and the few old houses that exist were built in the late 18th or early 19th centuries.

Almshouses Most new building was of individual houses until the 1930's except for the Almshouses. The Almshouses were built in 1848, at the same time as the Church, School and Schoolhouse, by the Marshall Charity. Originally these were six dwellings but were severely damaged by fire on Christmas Eve in 1963 and were rebuilt as the four dwellings they are now.

Public Housing In the late 1930's the first of what may be called small-scale housing developments were built when the six Council houses at Hernside and the seven bungalows along the south side of New Road were built.

Shortly after the end of World War II the Council housing estate at Chestnut Avenue was built. This is the largest housing estate in the Parish, consisting of some 28 dwellings.

Private Housing Taymor Place was opened in the early 1960's following the demolition of a row of houses, known as Church Row, facing the Main Street. Individual residences were built here over the years, the last being built in 1984.

At the beginning of the 1970's the bungalows along the north side of New Road from the Main Street were built on land which had been part of the former Rectory property. This was the last of the small scale housing developments to be built and, if the Borough Council's currently proposed policy for the construction of houses in the Parish is adopted, it is likely to be the last.

Until 1994 the guidelines used by the Planning Department of the Borough Council allowed "infill" building, that is, the building of individual residences on available land along existing roads, and small-scale developments, that is the building of small groups of houses, in the village. However, in 1994 changes to these guidelines were proposed which will severely restrict the building on "infill" land and prohibit the building of small estates. The Parish Council objected strongly to these changes but no agreement with the Borough Council has been reached to date.

At the present time there are approximately 230 dwellings in the Parish of which approximately:

44% are detached houses 28% are detached bungalows 24% are semi‑detached houses 2% are semi‑detached bungalows 2% are almshouses

A very small number of these dwellings are currently unoccupied. The replies to the questionnaire, representing about 85% of the total number of dwellings, showed thefollowing:

77% are owner occupied 10% are rented from the Council 7% are rented from private owners 3% are County Council farm dwellings 3% are tied dwellings.

The foregoing shows that by far the most of the dwellings in the Parish, some 84%,are privately owned, either occupied by the owner or rented to others, 13% are Council owned or 3% are tie dwellings. There have been substantial changes in households over the years with people moving into and out of the Parish. The following chart shows the number of households, as a percentage of the total, Number of Years and the number of years they have lived in the Parish.

The survey showed that about one quarter (23%) of the households in the Parish could be considered as original, long-term residents, having lived in the Parish for over 40 years; about one third (33%) have lived in the Parish for over 20 years and about two thirds (67%) moved into the Parish within the past 20 years, indicating a substantial change in residents over these past 20 years.


Moving into and out of the village Of the households that moved into the Parish during the past 40 years only some 30% previously lived in the area, having lived within 20 miles of the Parish. The other 70% previously lived over 20 miles away with by far the most of these, some 80%, having lived over 50 miles away. This is reflected in the change in the composition of the population, with fewer 'local' people living in the Parish, as is generally the case in most parishes.

A variety of reasons for moving into the Parish are given in the questionnaire, the main reasons being the attractiveness of the area, the lower cost and attractiveness of housing and employment in the area. Minor reasons include the availability of houses to rent, the peacefulness of the area, family ties and to take up farming.

In the past ten years a total of 85 individuals are reported in the questionnaire as having left the Parish from households still living in the Parish. Reasons given for leaving include lack of suitable housing, marriage or divorce, transfer of employment and going on to higher education, but by far the major reason given is the lack of suitable employment in the area, with half of the persons having left for this reason.

A number of households in the Parish are reported to be looking for alternative accommodation, either in or out of the Parish, within the next two years. Of those that wish to remain in the Parish most wish to buy a house or bungalow but anticipate a problem in finding a suitable property or are unable to sell their existing property. Others wish to rent a Council house but are either unable to get on the Council waiting list or have been on the list for over a year.

Of those that wish to move out of the Parish, about half want to locate within 20 miles of the Parish and half want to move out of the area. Most are looking for rented accommodation but cannot find suitable accommodation at an affordable price. Those wishing to buy a property outside the area anticipate a problem finding a suitable property at an affordable price.

Sources as noted.
Text, design and layout: Peter Cox
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